Vitality of Literature
A few years ago, when Rumania was struggling for freedom, some of the agents of the dictator Ceauscescu set fire to the National Library in Bucharest and the accumulated books and documents of centuries were lost; the historical memory of a whole nation was destroyed. The idea of a library being deliberately burned arouses feelings of great horror. It is often seen as the main sign of the wickedness of the first Emperor of China, that he ordered all the books in his empire to be destroyed. It is sometimes said that China has never fully recovered from that act. Moreover, the memory of it seems to have inspired some of contemporary China’s most terrible crimes against humanity in Tibet, where for decades both the living libraries, thousands of Buddhist monks, and the physical libraries accumulated through centuries in thousands of temples, have been systematically liquidated.
Of course, it could be argued that not to read any of the books available in a library is almost the same as burning it. Books are not memories, they are only the records of memory. When we use a computer, we know that it is very easy to lose everything on a hard disk. In order to remedy against that, we make back-ups. A living human memory can have no back-up system; instead, every society has developed systems of transmission, or tradition. Every person has an increasing past and a diminishing future; continuity is only possible if there is effective transmission from one generation to another. Schools are intended to be places for that transmission. Books are the main lines of transmission.
Books are written in order to permit continuity and communication to occur between people who will usually never meet. Continuity of tradition is a struggle against oblivion; the loss of historical memory is one sign of a threatening darkness. We are living in a time when many people deny the possibility of history, or try to rewrite the past to justify the present; yet as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, the good, the beautiful, the true, are only possible in long historical continuities. The author of a book may have died centuries ago, or live in a distant country; if the ideas and memories a writer put into a book come alive in a reader’s mind, there is transmission and continuity.
The Gospel of John begins with a tremendous illumination: “In the beginning was the Word.” The Christian faith has developed and spread on a basis of Word, the fragile conviction that the words we use are not mere cuckoo-cries. Of course, John was using the Greek word, logos, that does not really mean an individual ‘word’ so much as a “speaking out.” What is important, though, is the idea of a Word, a Speaking, that comes before any other event and is the origin of all events, of all creation’s history.
This is revolutionary because people usually consider that human speech originates in a need to transmit information recorded in an individual memory after experiences made in the past. The transmission of information without speech already exists among bees, in the way they dance out the position of flowers, and in birds, whose songs are not words in any real sense, except that they are sounds produced in the throat. We certainly often use words for the same warning purpose, but John insists that the Word, the eternal Logos of God, is more: a source, not of information, but of light and life. This light and life, John says are opposed by darkness and absence, the powers of death, of silence.
The Word, of which our speech-acts are assumed to be a faint metaphor, a symbol sharing some kind of common nature, is creative of new reality. God’s first word to his creation in Genesis is recorded as “Let there be light” and in response “there was light.” The void or chaos of potential space-time into which God speaks has one latent talent: like each of us, it is capable of imagination, and the word of God it hears provokes an imaginative response, our material “reality,” light and so energy, come to be.
Words have never been simple bearers of factual information. From the very beginning of human culture, people have rightly valued the act of “story-telling” in which the human imagination passes lightly beyond the limitations of what normally happens and explores what else might happen, in a slightly different world. There fairies may dance, dragons roar, and heroes rise to every challenge or perish gloriously. Children still demand stories at bedtime, because fantastic tales teach them to dream their lives in more significant ways while they sleep.
The close-knit community found in the farming villages of centuries past was centered in the activities of working, and of story-telling. In Europe, some of these farms turned into royal “courts” (Court in English, Hof in German cover both meanings) and the story-telling continued in a more sophisticated manner, to produce “courtly literature.” In African villages the “palaver” is the main way in which life is given shape, hours and hours of talking, mostly in the form of “stories” by which the older members of the village express the forms that life traditionally takes. They tell stories, not to teach them to the young, but because at the end of the stories a decision will have been reached for the future action of the community.
What we now often call literature has developed out of story- telling, and is a form of it. The distinction between “fact” and “fiction” is transcended by the demand that literary works, even of high fantasy, should be “credible.” Even today, literature offers both instruction and pleasure, when the reading imagination and creative curiosity are alert. A literature that offered nothing for life, except a means of blocking out the invasion of tedium that foreshadows death, would be no literature, but escapist junk.
In England, with its miserable climate, the traditional place for telling stories has always been around the fireplace; in winter, night comes early there and the weather is often wild, even when summer is near. In the old farm-courts there was a common hall, with a fire in the middle of the room, around which people sat in a full circle. Later the fire was put in a wall and given a chimney, the circle was reduced to a half, the speakers were reduced in number, but the feeling of community and the story-telling activities remained the same until recently, until television destroyed human society.
In Shakespeare, there are moments when famous characters mention “story-telling” as something that will happen to themselves, people in the future will tell their story. Richard II, learning that he may loose his crown, says “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Later, when he has lost everything and is being taken to prison, he meets his young wife, and says:
In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds . . . (V.i.40-5)
For Shakespeare, there are two kinds of stories, or tales: sad, and happy. Strangely enough, people like to hear sad tales, to read horror stories, watch movies about Dracula, see violence on the TV. But even happy endings make people cry, sometimes.
Every person has many tales to tell, the story of their life is a mixture of joys and pains, big or little ones, and deserves to be told once at least. The Korean poet Ko Un has begun to write many volumes of poems under the title Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) in which he hopes to evoke the stories of all the people he has ever known, because in many cases, he is the last link between them and the silence of oblivion. People who lived and died in remote villages, children who died and were given no tomb. Memory, he says, is a human right. Story-telling is the traditional form of collective memory.